Frederick Douglas IV speaks Tuesday at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania about his great-great-grandfather, Frederick Douglas, who escaped from slavery and went on to become one of the most important figures in 19th century American history.

A nearly 150-year-old Holy Bible, its leather bindings worn with years, was laid out open under glass at the front of the auditorium.

It was a gift from Frederick Douglass Jr. to his son in 1864. Passed down through the generations, its yellowed pages represent a link to a legacy for the fourth generation bearing that

name, and, placed in that room, for the rest of us as well.

“We all have in ourselves the innate ability to transform our lives for the better. It doesn’t matter how you came into the room,” said Frederick Douglass IV, great-great-grandson of 19th-century figurehead abolitionist, publisher, orator and activist Frederick Douglass, before a crowd at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania’s Cole Auditorium-Memorial Hall on Tuesday.

The Meadville native, along with his wife, B.J., travels throughout the country, lecturing about his ancestor’s historic shift from viewing the U.S. Constitution as a document used to justify slavery to using it himself as a tool in abolishing it. He talked at Tuesday’s public event about his great-great-grandfather’s beginnings as a slave, what became his legacy as one of the nation’s most prolific and influential social activists, and that history’s connection to the present and future.

“We all are involved in slavery. It’s a part of our lives. All these things that are part of the American experience have an impact on us,” said Douglass. “American history is not ‘black history’ or ‘white history.’ ”

And that’s a message that needs to be kept alive and built upon through future generations, he said.

“I encourage young men in particular to resume their responsibility in society — to be full participants,” he said. “You have to understand how the country functions. You have to vote. You have to become economically viable. Then you can go out in society and have an impact on others.”

Tuesday’s presentation, sponsored by the university Multicultural Programs Office, Office of Student Life, Office of the President and Student Government Association, also included a musical performance by United Voices of Edinboro and introductions by Frederick Douglass Teaching Fellow Melissa Haithcox and university President Jeremy D. Brown.

DID YOU KNOW: Frederick Douglass IV, great-great-grandson of 19th-century figurehead abolitionist, publisher, orator and activist Frederick Douglass, attended Meadville’s Second District Elementary School and graduated from Meadville Area Senior High School in 1965. His father operated a local landscaping and home repairs service, and his mother Sallie, who operated a preschool in Meadville, graduated from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania at the age of 66. “My roots are deep in this community,” he said Tuesday.

Ryan Smith can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at

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